Antigua & Barbuda, West Indies
After spending 5 months in 2018 touring the Caribbean, in 2019 I still wanted to see more. I decided to base myself in the region for 6 months & chose the beautiful island of Antigua for my home. Here, you can find details of the 20 best things to do in Antigua from my perspective as a local.
Antigua & Barbuda are a twin-island nation & a true gem of the Caribbean. Unlike several of its volcanic neighbours, Antigua is a coral island. This means beaches with powder white sand along the whole coast. Three hundred & sixty-five beaches to be exact…1 for every day of the year!
“A car is essential to gain a true flavour of this Caribbean gem, from the beaches at the coast to the rainforest drive through the centre of the island. Find your perfect beach, eat some lobster, relax over rum & a sunset. Unwind & enjoy!”
What do you need to know?
Many people experience Antigua from a cruise ship stop or All-Inclusive Hotel, of which there are several exceptional choices. I’m hoping to persuade you to come for longer than a day (if you’re on a cruise) or get out & about to discover more of this beautiful twin-island state (if you’re in a resort). If you would also like to read another perspective on the island then head to my Insider’s Guide.
Language & Currency
As a previous colony, the language spoken is English, peppered with the local Caribbean dialect. The currency is Eastern Caribbean Dollars (EC$) which is used across all the islands of the English speaking West Indies. In very basic terms you can relate
1UK£/EU€/US$ = 3EC$
Top 20 Best Things To Do In Antigua
Here are my top 20 best things to do in Antigua, from the perspective of being a local. These are also reasons why Antigua should be a big part of any itinerary to explore the islands of the Caribbean.
Antigua has a brutal history, starting with the first inhabitants of Amerindians before being “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Antigua & Barbuda were eventually declared an English Colony in 1667. Historically sugar was the main crop, leading to the importation of African slaves.
“After the abolition of the slave trade, a “farm” was established by the Codrington family who had ownership of Barbuda. Children were bred on the island to supply the demand for free labour across the region until the emancipation of the slaves in 1834.”
This dark echo from the past has left its mark across the twin-island state. In 1981 Antigua & Barbuda became an independent nation.
As I’ve said, Antigua is home to 365 beaches & although I didn’t visit every single one, I can attest that they are all stunning! The important thing to note is that all beaches on the island are open to the public. Unfortunately, many can appear private as they are cut off by the resorts.
“The trick is to ask for the access & they cannot deny you”
Sometimes it means finding the correct gap in the fence (all legal!). It is often possible to have a long stretch of powder-white sand & clear blue waters almost to yourself. Coming from Europe, this just blew me away!
Clearly, you have a huge choice, but here are some of my favourites:
This is one of the most popular beaches where you can find a couple of the big resorts (Sandals, Siboney Beach Club), as well as plenty of bars, restaurants & watersports. There are beach chairs to rent & if the cruise ships are in, it is one of the busiest beaches on the island (although still empty if you’re used to European resorts!). There is also a fun Tiki bar floating just off the beach.
“Find the surfboard, wave the flag from the beach & get a boat to come & pick you up!”
The resort has the same name, but the beach is as accessible as all of them on the island. If you head to the right, there is a wooden walkway which takes you to a smaller stretch of sand where you can enjoy even more privacy!
Valley Church Beach.
A public beach with a bit of shade, closer to Jolly Harbour. I spent many happy hours watching a crab get to work on digging his home out of the sand.
“It’s a busy beach on Falmouth Harbour but a great place to watch the yachts as they come & go.”
It is particularly worth a visit during Antigua Sailing Week (more on that later) when there is even more action than usual. There are restaurants to meet all budgets at either end of the beach (Bumpkins & Catherine’s Café) & it is a great place to watch the sunset (with a view of Montserrat on a clear day).
A local choice & again a big stretch of sand with barely anyone else on it. At the end is another great restaurant to watch the sunset (Beach Limerz), & a little further you can explore the cannons which mark the old fort itself.
And then there’s…
3. Half Moon Bay
“Looking down you see the distinct shape which gives the beach its name & water spanning a whole spectrum of blue.”
From the car park, turn right & you can have this gorgeous stretch of sand pretty much all to yourself (or you can until they complete the big hotel which is due to open in 2021). Turn left & you will join a few lucky people who have discovered this spot. This area is more sheltered for swimming & you can go for a walk to see the waves crashing on the rocks.
4. Find A Secret Beach!
All 365 of the beaches in Antigua are not accessible by road, so one of the fun ways to explore is to try & find one of your own “secret beaches” where it is absolutely possible to have a little strip of paradise all to yourself. To give this a go, hire a jet ski, take out a boat or head to my favourite:
This one is more of a challenge to find but well worth the effort if you want a piece of paradise literally all to yourself. You will either need a four-wheel drive to get there or take a car but be prepared for a bit of a hike. If you can, ask people along the way for help to find it.
“When I went, we were the only ones on the beach, with the pelicans diving into the water just next to us. A truly magical experience!”
5. Old Sugar Mills
Peppered around the island is plenty of evidence of the brutal history of Antigua in the form of sugar mill towers from plantation & slavery days. A few have been incorporated into buildings & used as landmarks. Many are falling down & overgrown but make an interesting addition to the landscape.
As with many islands in the region, Antigua has its fair share of forts & old defence locations. One of the best is Fort James. The buildings here are derelict which in my opinion, makes things more picturesque but there are plans for a huge development here so visit soon to see it like that! There are great views out into the ocean with a row of cannons still looking ready to defend at any moment, should the island face an attack!
“I’m not a cricket fan but I learnt a lot about the game & the atmosphere was great fun!”
If you’re feeling wealthy, then why not try & get your hands on some VIP tickets? That way you can enjoy the game from a swimming pool by the bar!
Antigua’s twin island is well worth a day trip. Barbuda was devastated during the hurricane season in 2017 but is on its way back. The journey there is 90 minutes via ferry (US$85) & a return trip with a tour (recommended as it’s hard to organise once you arrive) is US$164 per person. The tour includes a taxi around the island, round trip ferry, visit to the frigate bird sanctuary & a lobster lunch on the beach (in season July-April, unfortunately I visited in June!). Although an expensive excursion, it is a whole other experience to Antigua.
“When I went, we were the only tourists there, including being the alone as we swam on the 17 mile stretch of pink sand beach”
Interesting history, beautiful views, wildlife & paradise, all to yourself. To learn more about Barbuda, watch this space as I will be writing the full experience up over the next few weeks.
9. Shirley Heights Lookout
No visit to Antigua is complete without a trip up to Shirley Heights. This is where you get the archetypal view of Antigua, looking down onto Falmouth & English Harbour. You can get an all-inclusive ticket for this & the Nelsons Dockyard complex. It’s a particularly fun place to visit on a Sunday night….
10. Sunday nights
Go up here from 4pm for a fun night watching the sunset over English Harbour. You will be entertained for the afternoon by an excellent 20-piece steel band, fab food from the BBQ & a couple of bars.
“The Dark & Stormy is mixed with homemade Ginger Beer & comes highly recommended (research meant I sampled a few on your behalf!)”
Once the sun goes down & the steel pans stop playing, attention moves to the stage where there is a great party band for the remainder of the night.
Located at one end of Fort James beach, on a Sunday, Beach Limerz also offers a band (starting at 1pm). The guy on the steel pan in the evening is excellent & a definite draw. It’s also a gorgeous place to watch the sunset over the beach as the pelican’s dive for their dinner. If you want to eat here, I’d suggest you book ahead as Sunday’s are busy!
During my time on the island, I spoke to a number of people who were staying in various resorts. What transpired is that when visiting the big hotels, there is a feeling of missing out a little on getting that true local experience. My friend Michael recently set himself up as a guide on MeetNGreetMe & I can’t think of a more perfect way to explore the island. The idea of the site is that you can effectively have a personal tour guide or someone in situ who can organise your stay for you ahead of time. He can then take you to all the key sites you want to visit, giving you a flavour of local life along the way. So, if you’re planning a trip to Antigua (or anywhere else for that matter), why not sign up?
12. Sting Ray City
“Stingrays are fed but come of their own accord & it’s a brilliant opportunity to spend time learning, watching & interacting with these fascinating creatures.”
And don’t worry, they are perfectly safe! It’s the second time I have seen the Stingrays in the Caribbean (see my video from Grand Cayman) & both times I have chosen not to interact beyond a bit of feeding. There is a chance to have a photo while holding a ray, which I don’t agree with & goes beyond my comfort zone for animal interactions.
13. Sailing week
Ironically, Antigua Sailing Week actually lasts for about a month in April. You can check dates here. Antigua is a mecca for yachties & the sailing regatta is one of the highlights of the Caribbean season. Ahead of the official sailing week is Classics Week which I would thoroughly recommend.
“Watching a yacht cut through the waves is serene at any time but when it’s a beautiful, big classic old yacht it takes on a whole new element of grace.“
There are always lots of events organised around the regatta. It’s a great time to base yourself around English Harbour & Falmouth to make the most of parties every night & the buzz of the atmosphere.
If you sail, then why not try & get yourself a place on board? Speak to people around Falmouth Marina & see if anyone is looking for crew. If you don’t sail, there is also a “Chase the Race” boat or head to one of the many vantage points. I haven’t yet taken part in Antigua Sailing Week but you can read all about my experience in my first regatta here.
14. English Harbour & Nelsons Dockyard
A must do while you’re on the island is this beautiful Harbour & well-preserved dockland area. You may be charged an entrance fee to access the historic complex which also includes a Shirley Heights visit. But, if it’s not a cruise ship day & you pick the correct time, walk along the right-hand side of the entrance building & you should be able to access the site for free.
Here you can admire the yachts in the marina & walk along the peninsula to see the buildings and view from Fort Berkeley. Then check out the museum if you want to know more about the history of the area. If you’re peckish, get the boat from Admirals Inn over to Boom Restaurant for some time by the pool & a delicious lunch with an outstanding view. You can drive, but getting the boat is way more fun!
15. Eat local
If you can find local cuisine, then hunt it out! In particular Conch Water/ Goat Water (basically soup). There are also various dumplings which are a tasty addition to a meal of codfish or salt fish. Ask for Johnny cakes or bakes. Dukhana are also tasty with a spiced flavour from nutmeg & cinnamon, mixed with sweet potato. You will see BBQ’s on the side of the road across the island. I ate from many & the food was always excellent. In addition, there are fruit stalls everywhere & it’s worth stocking up on seasonal produce here, & much better than going to one of the supermarkets. The mangoes in particular are delicious!
“Unique to Antigua is the Black Pineapple so if you get chance, try it for yourself.”
16. Devils Bridge
Devils Bridge is a natural rock formation which has created a bridge over the water as the waves crash through the space. It comes with a gruesome history as it represents a site where slaves used to go & throw themselves off when life understandably got too much to bear. Today, it is an interesting addition to the coastal landscape & a great spot to see the power of the ocean.
17. Stay on a bus
Rum Bus Beach is named after the 2 red London buses which sit on the beach & have been converted into a couple of bedrooms. It’s a great gimmick & they look amazing. If you don’t fancy spending the night, then head to the beach anyway for some relaxing cocktails.
18. Learn to Sail
If the talk of Antigua’s fantastic naval history & beautiful marinas get you in the mood to try your hand at sailing, then head over to the National Sailing Academy in Falmouth Harbour. Here, they offer sailing training for free to Antiguan school children. You can either hire a dinghy if you have someone who knows what they’re doing or take a course yourself. Either way it’s fun to get involved. I spent a fantastic afternoon sailing to Pigeon Point & back.
The Caribbean islands are famed for their joyous Carnival’s & as such Antigua is no different. If you are visiting the island at the end of July/early August, then make sure you check what is on where. I have never been but have it on good authority that it is a fantastic party!
20. Hire a Car
Whatever you choose to do on this beautiful island, please don’t just stay at the resort as there will be so much you will miss out on.
“I recommend hiring a car for at least a couple of days which will truly give you the freedom to explore.”
A car is essential to gain a true flavour of this Caribbean gem, from the beaches at the coast (take your pick) to the rainforest drive through the centre of the island. Find your perfect beach, eat some lobster, relax over rum & a sunset. Unwind & enjoy!
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